Far East travels
I went to Asia for work. A conference in Tokyo where I could present my research was a good reason to head east, and then I decided to combine the trip with a visit to Taipei for more astronomical research, after which I would travel back to Japan for some holiday.
I had feared that my month away would be just a long sweaty mess. Weather forecasts before I left suggested that Tokyo would be brutal and Taipei would be horrifically brutal, with no respite from heat and humidity until I returned to London. It turned out quite differently: Tokyo was just overcast, very humid but not very hot. And Taipei was pretty amazingly hot but not the furnace I'd built it up in my mind to be. Still, I was happy to be staying in a place with air conditioning not too far away from the air conditioned office I was in at the National Taiwan University.
My dream was to travel from Taipei back to Tokyo at ground level. Ten years ago it would have been possible, but these days there are no boats from Taiwan to any of the nearby Japanese islands. There are not even boats between a lot of the Japanese islands any more. But luckily there is still a boat from Okinawa to mainland Japan, so I flew from Taipei to Naha to start my Japan travels there.
I only had a day in Naha. I had a look around the centre of town during the day, and then headed to Shuri-Jo in the evening. I got there just in time to see the sunset.
I had a look around Shuri-Jo as night fell. The crescent Moon looked pretty nice in the evening skies.
From up on the castle ramparts, I had a good view of the city suburbs.
Naha was OK, and I would have liked to see more of Okinawa, but really the main reason I was there was to get the ferry to Kagoshima. Long boat journeys are awesome, and this one would last a little bit more than a day, wending its way through the Ryukyu Islands up to Kyushu, 500 miles away.
So I got up before dawn and walked from where I was staying to the port. It had rained in the night but it was a clear morning as the boat left at 7am.
I had a spot in a large communal sleeping room. Heading out of Naha, I was the only one in there and I thought my luck was really in. But every couple of hours we called in at another island and every time a bunch more people got on. By nightfall it was pretty crowded.
The boat journey was fantastic. The day was hot and beautiful and I spent a lot of it out on deck. Hundreds and hundreds of flying fish were leaping out of the water to escape the boat, looking absurd and spectacular as they glided across the waves to safety. When it got too hot outside I could head indoors for some aggressive air conditioning and a cold coffee from the vending machines. I thought for a while I was the only foreigner on board but a couple of stops in, another two appeared, a mother and daughter to ruin my self-image as a fearless adventurous traveller. By sunset they seemed to have disembarked again.
Sunset seemed to last for hours. Epic thunderclouds towered all around, a lot of them showering rain on islands below. It all lit up in wild red and orange, and I wandered around and around the deck taking it all in.
It was cool and misty as we arrived at Kagoshima. When I woke up we were already in Kagoshima Bay, and I wanted to get a look at Sakurajima volcano, but it was hidden from view.
Sakurajima was what I was here to see. It's one of the more active volcanoes in the world, so there was a good chance of seeing something going on.
I was out of luck with the volcano. It's active enough that all the roads on the island have shelters every few hundred metres where you can take shelter from rocks in case of eruptions, but nothing particularly dramatic was happening while I was there.
I got the ferry over to the island a few times, and saw what I could, but there was nothing more than a plume of volcanic gas always rising from it, there were no eruptions while I was there.
One evening on the island I walked to Akamizu Park, where there are views of the volcano. It's also the site of a monument to commemorate an all night open air concert, which was held in 2004 and brought 75,000 people to the island. It was extremely peaceful today though - there was no-one there but me, and I watched the sun setting behind the city before I walked back to the port to get the ferry back over.
I got a bullet train to Kumamoto. It was phenomenally expensive but pretty awesome, accelerating stunningly quickly to a pace that British trains do not customarily achieve, and while a bus would have been about a third of the price, it would have taken about three times as long.
The train from Kumamoto to Aso only goes as far as Higo-Ozo at the moment as the line was damaged in an earthquake in 2016. And Aso itself is not nearly as accessible as usual, with a lot of trails closed. I'd hoped to go up to the crater rim, but barriers across all the roads and paths heading that way were pretty unambiguous. So I hiked up to Kijima-dake and at least got some pretty good views of the ash-covered surroundings of Naka-dake, the active vent.
I got the train from Aso to Beppu, from where I got another ferry to Osaka. It was a much bigger boat than the Okinawa ferry, and the journey wasn't as good as we set off in darkness, but it was still a great way to head on north.
I'd got a taxi from Beppu train station to the port, having arrived without enough time to work out which bus to take. When I asked for the port, the driver chuckled and said "Typhoon!". Typhoon Hato had caused some downpours in Taiwan a week earlier and now there was another one out to the east that was forecast to be heading in towards Japan. But the night was calm, and I slept well. I got up early to see the sunrise.
A little bit after sunrise, we passed under a huge bridge. It was the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which links Honshu with Shikoku via Awaji Island, and it's the longest suspension bridge in the world.
I headed into Osaka. My destination for the night was Kyoto, but I was in no rush so I had a bit of a look around near the station in the morning before I got the Kyoto train.
I only had one night in Kyoto. That's not enough for anything, really, and all I did was walk around the city a bit. I saw a few temples, and that was about it.
I rushed past Kyoto mainly because I wanted to try and climb Mount Fuji. The morning after I arrived in Kyoto, having seen pretty much nothing of the city's attractions, I left again and got a train to Mishima. I got a seat on the left of the train to see if I could see the mountain, and I got a glimpse of it as we passed the town of Fuji.
I got to Kawaguchiko in the late evening, and at 5am the next morning I was up and getting ready for a hike. I got the first bus of the day to the 5th station where the trail start. In town it had been heavily overcast, but by the 5th station, 2300m above sea level, we were above the clouds. The mountain peak seemed incredibly close by, and hardly looked like much of a challenge. I felt like I could be at the top in twenty minutes.
Climbing Fuji in the summertime is not exactly a wilderness adventure. The trail is like a street, and in places there are huts at just about every corner. I've seen photos of summer weekends where there is just an endless queue of climbers ascending, and luckily it wasn't so busy today, but there were still plenty of people heading up.
Far from wild it may be, but it's still a decent challenge, and at the bottom of the trail looking up, the summit looked an awful lot further away than it had from the 5th station.
All the way up, I was above the clouds, but I could see they were slowly rising up the trail behind me. I was pretty sure I'd be going back down into some bad weather.
As I neared the summit there were some breaks in the cloud, and I could see all the way down to the Pacific coast.
In 2001 after I'd travelled in Australia, I spent a night in Japan. Coming from Australian summer to Japanese midwinter was an amazing transition, and I felt like I'd slipped into a parallel universe as I wandered around temples in Narita town in the cold fog. As I flew out of Tokyo early the next morning, I was stuck in the middle seat of the middle row of the plane, but soon after take-off, as the plane was banking, I had the most stunning view out of a distant window of Mount Fuji, looking right down into its crater.
16 years later, after four and a half hours on the trail, I made it to the crater's edge, and it seemed strange to think of my younger self looking down on this.
I considered whether to walk around the crater rim. It didn't look like such a nice walk with an ugly building on the opposite rim, but then I realised that that opposite rim was the true highest point, and so I headed over. I was 3,776m above sea level.
I completed the loop of the crater. On the way up I'd started saying hi to people who were climbing at about the same pace as me, as we passed and repassed each other at various points on the trail. I met one of them coming the other way around and we congratulated each other on making it to the top.
After I'd gone around the crater, I headed down. This was really not much fun at all - the Yoshida trail descent is a relentless series of zigzags cut into loose rocky ground, at just the right gradient to be really harsh on the knees. I zigzagged down the zigzags for what seemed like days, wishing I had hiking poles with me. Some people were walking down backwards, I suppose to ease the assault on their knees though it didn't look particularly practical.
As I got nearer to the bottom of the trail, I reached the cloud layer. Pretty quickly visibility was down to just a few metres. It was late afternoon now, and quite a few people were heading up, presumably planning to stay at one of the huts overnight. The weather forecast was for pretty bad conditions, with heavy rain and possibly gales. I didn't fancy their chances of making it to the top or having a particularly fun time trying.
A little over nine hours after I'd left, I reached the fifth station again. The bright morning sunshine seemed like weeks ago, now that we were in thick cloud.
As I'd reached the bottom of the steepest part of the trail I'd started to get a headache and feel that I couldn't breathe in properly. I wondered if I was suffering with the altitude and in a moment of runaway hypochondria, decided I might have a high-altitude pulmonary oedema. At fifth station, the cloud was briefly so thick that I could not even see the buildings from a few metres away, but I found a stand selling coffee and bought one. Then I discovered that the symptoms of high altitude pulmonary oedema and the symptoms of mild caffeine deprivation are easily confused, and I soon felt great again.
I didn't have time to see any of the other sights of the Fuji Go-Ko region. I was tempted to stay one more day but I only had one more day, and I wanted to see a bit more of Tokyo. So all I saw of Kawaguchiko was the not very pleasant route from the station to where I was staying.
I'd have loved to arrive in Tokyo by Shinkansen, but there was a bus to Shinjuku that was a third of the price, so I got that. When I arrived back in the capital it was raining, and I discovered later that there had been 20 consecutive days of rain, a 40-year record.
I went up to the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. At 200m above street level I was in the clouds at first, but luckily the clouds base rose a bit while I was there, and the city appeared.
At the bottom of the building I walked randomly into a deserted plaza. The views looking back up were pretty awesome.
It rained heavily for most of my last day in Japan. I spent a lot of it in a cafe, but eventually headed out for a walk. With no plan at all I walked from Chuo to Ryogoku and north along the Sumida River to Asakusa.
By chance I ended up in an area with streets full of small shops selling souvenirs.
My walk took me to Ueno station. It was around rush hour and the commuting activity was pretty frenetic.
After that I walked south to Akihabara and back to Chuo. My time in Japan was over but it had felt like way longer than two weeks since I arrived in Naha. Still, if I come here again, I hope I'll be able to stay for a lot longer.